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Mexican drug cartels target region for heroin sales

| Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 11:57 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Caitlyn Stone comforts Nick Carrozza after they both testified about their struggles with heroin addiction to members of the State House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Corrections during a regional public hearing that focused on the law enforcement response to the state’s heroin epidemic at the Hempfield Township Municipal Building on Oct. 09, 2013.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Detective Tony Marcocci, of the Westmoreland County Heroin Task Force, displays stamp bags of heroin while testifying to members of the State House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Corrections with Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck during a regional public hearing that focused on the law enforcement response to the state’s heroin epidemic at the Hempfield Township Municipal Building on Oct. 09, 2013.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Westmoreland County Detective Tony Marcocci displays stamp bags of heroin while testifying in October 2013 to members of the state House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Corrections about the state’s heroin epidemic.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Gary Tennis, secretary of PA Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, testifies to members of the State House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Corrections during a regional public hearing that focused on the law enforcement response to the state’s heroin epidemic at the Hempfield Township Municipal Building on Oct. 09, 2013.

Pennsylvania has been infiltrated by violent Mexican drug cartels that have established a foothold in the western part of the state, law enforcement officials say.

The Gulf and Sinaloa cartels are shipping “huge quantities” of heroin into the United States, reaping billions of dollars in profits, according to testimony in Hempfield on Wednesday before the state House Subcommittee on Crime and Corrections.

The committee, chaired by Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Delmont, held the first of three statewide hearings to hear testimony from law enforcement officials about a surge in heroin and drug overdose deaths.

The panel heard testimony from Gary Tennis, state secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs; district attorneys from Westmoreland and six other counties; state and county narcotics agents; and recovering addicts.

David Ellis, regional director of the state Bureau of Narcotics Investigations in North Huntingdon, said investigations by the Attorney General's Office showed the availability of heroin in the state is “alarmingly high.”

“The revenue flowing back to Mexico, whether in the form of bulk cash or wire transfers, is simply remarkable, estimated at several billion dollars per year,” he said.

Heroin comes into Pennsylvania along the major travel arteries — Interstate 70, Interstate 80 and the turnpike from the west and Interstate 95 from the south — and via rural airstrips.

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said the heroin epidemic has increased the number of thefts and robberies by addicts who drive to Pittsburgh or Penn Hills to buy heroin and “begin consuming it on the Parkway back into Westmoreland County.”

Detective Rick Ealing of the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office said agents recently seized 21 kilograms — more than 46 pounds — of heroin and $600,000 from a Mexican cartel member. The suspect had a false identity on a valid Mexican driver's license when he was arrested.

“I have received information from confidential sources that the cartels are attempting to establish a market in the Pittsburgh area,” Ealing said.

Ealing said the flow of heroin between Allegheny and Westmoreland counties is a major problem. Money flows one way and drugs the other, he said.

Since May, agents from the DA's Impact Squad have arrested 200 dealers in the Routes 30 and 22 corridors connecting Westmoreland, Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg. Ealing said drug networks are using established, local drug gangs to distribute heroin, which makes it easy for dealers to market the drug.

The dealers are smart and sophisticated, Ealing said.

“They've studied every law enforcement technique that we have and found ways to get around them,” he said.

Detective Kevin Price of the Cambria County Drug Task Force said his unit arrested 150 dealers this summer. The task force discovered a drug pipeline connecting Philadelphia and Cambria, Bedford and Somerset counties. Price said the task force recently seized 50,000 stamp bags of heroin valued at $250,000 during a search of an apartment occupied by three dealers.

Butler County District Attorney Richard Goldinger testified that Philadelphia-based drug gangs control the flow of heroin into Butler. Dealers buy houses as rental properties but use them as conduits for heroin sales.

“This is the sort of problem a small town must deal with when big-city thugs appear,” Goldinger said.

Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty said the crime rate there over the past five years has increased “almost single-handedly” as a result of heroin and prescription drug abuse.

Last year, law enforcement agencies dismantled a drug network in Indiana with roots in Detroit.

District Attorney Gene Vittone said Washington County's court caseload rose from 2,400 cases a year to more than 3,100, mainly because of heroin and prescription medications.

Westmoreland County Detective Tony Marcocci said parents have begged him to arrest their addicted children.

“I can't tell you how many times I've been approached by parents actually asking me to arrest their children. It's the only way they can get them into treatment,” he said.

The committee heard testimony from two recovering addicts, Caitlyn Stone and Nicholas Carrozza.

Stone said she began using marijuana and drinking alcohol before moving onto pills and then heroin.

Carrozza went to jail for selling drugs. He was released and went on the run until he was caught.

“I wanted help,” he told the committee. “I didn't want to use. I was sick of being a junkie.”

Secretary Tennis said addicts “want to quit, but addiction won't let them.”

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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